Prologue: Last year on New Year’s Eve, I was walking along Carondolet and had a strange feeling just as I passed the old police station on the corner at Saint Joseph Street. I had a strange feeling, as if I weren’t alone. As I stood there trying to figure it out, a streetcar came by. I snapped this picture and decided to write a short story vaguely inspired by what I was feeling.
A Lonely Beer, a Rainy Night and Camus
By CE Hunt (©CE Hunt, 2021)
It was the loneliest beer ever drank.
I studied the ring the mug left on the wooden bar. I studied the few remaining bubbles fighting their way to the surface. It was almost finished. I wanted this beer done.
I didn’t know what came next though as I sat in the dark bar. The two televisions, open door and neon lights provided some light. It was just me, the twenty-something bartender washing glasses, a couple fawning all over each other in the darkened corner, and a rainy New Orleans at dusk out that propped-open door. A soccer game from somewhere in the world, a muffled version of “Don’t Stop Believing,” and the occasional tires splashing on the street outside provided the soundtrack.
I had just left him for what felt like the last time. It had to be. His eyes, damn his eyes. So sad. Nothing sadder than to see a nice man, a genuinely nice man, cry. He didn’t deserve to be sad. I didn’t like myself for doing that to him.
“Ma’am, you wanna ‘nother?” I peered around to the bartender. Why’d he call me ma’am? I couldn’t be more than five years older than he. What did he see in me? Was I looking that old? I still had my looks, bastard.
“How about a beer and a shot, you know, the special?” Who said that? It dawned on me that I did. I guess a lonely shot and beer was okay. The rain kept coming down.
“Coming up.” He swung into action.
As he presented the drinks on the bar before me he said, “You waiting on someone, or for the rain to end?” He smiled.
“Not sure, really.”
“Pretty woman like you?”
“Kind of you to say. I’m just chilling as they say. Thinking through stuff.”
“Let me know if you need a sounding board. I’m even a law student at Tulane. Cheers.” He winked as he drifted off to serve a customer just coming in out of the rain. The law student bartender seemed a tad flirtatious. I studied myself. I admired my legs. I did look good in this black dress. Simple, not long, not short. I took pride in still “having it.” I noted the rain still coming down.
“Can I sit down?” I turned around to see an attractive man standing to my left. I hadn’t seen him come in. He was about 6’2”. Medium build. A few specks of gray in his dark hair. Handsome strong face.
“Sure, I’m about to shove off.” He smiled but looked a tad confused. I quickly added, “Wait, you’re welcome to have a seat though.”
“Sure?” His smile immediately put me at ease.
The bartender changed the ambient sound. More classic rock, less soccer announcing.
“You live around here?”
“Yes, for now.” He was getting a bit nosey.
“About to move?”
“Not sure. What about you?”
“In town visiting my mom. Grew up here. Metairie. You?” He was maintaining a lot of eye contact. Confident.
“I lived in the Lower Garden growing up.”
As he ordered a drink, he turned to look at me, “Doing okay on drinks?”
“I’m good, but thanks.” I was feeling the shot.
“No worries. Just nice chatting with you. No need to rush off. I figured you were from here. You somehow just got the look.”
I studied the white line around my finger where the ring Doug had given me once sat.
“How do you mean?”
“You know, this city makes some of the most attractive people. Maybe it’s more than just looks, maybe it’s a certain attitude. An openness, confidence, an abandon.”
I smiled at him.
“No. I mean it. It’s really a thing. It’s like an openness to having fun no matter the circumstance. Believe me, people back east aren’t always like that.”
“Yeah. I know what you mean. You may have that too, whatever it is.”
We sat quiet for a moment. He even smelled good.
“The rain is slacking off.” I peered into the now damp night awaiting me outside that door.
“Hey, you want to grab dinner somewhere?”
I turned around to look at him and started to say yes, then found myself blurting out, “Not tonight. Sorry. But I’ve enjoyed visiting with you.”
“I’m Wes. Wes Hughes.”
“Pleasure meeting you, Millicent.”
“Notice, I said ‘meeting’ you, no need for the evening to end, huh?” He did have that New Orleans air about him. A confidence. I liked it.
I smiled and stood and started putting on my raincoat. Wes arose to help. A gentleman.
“Millicent, can we by any chance see each other again?”
“I don’t know.”
“I mean. I’m not sure. It’s complicated.”
“Sure, no worries. Just enjoyed our chat.”
I studied him a second. Nice dimples. His glasses gave him an intellectual look.
“Me too, Wes.” I paused a second, and before I knew it, I blurted out, “Say Wes, what’s your favorite Albert Camus novel?” I felt idiotic right after I said it.
We looked at each other a second. He slowly smiled, and replied, “Well, it’s a tie, The Stranger and The Fall.”
His reply was almost an aphrodisiac. I was almost ready to take this guy to my place right then. I quickly regained my senses.
“Say, what do you do Mr. Hughes, why are you here in town, just visiting?”
“Well, a book signing at Tulane and a bookstore here. Just published a book. Really, I’m a lit professor in New Jersey currently.”
That explained it. “I’m impressed. When’s the signing?”
“Already happened. Leaving in a few days.”
“Well, thanks for making my evening better, Wes.” Not sure why I felt to need to leave. Internally, I was very conflicted. Sometimes, you just defer to your inner voice.
“You too, Millicent.”
I noted his leather satchel on the bar. Crazily, I mused whether it’d smell like leather. So much to like about this guy. Why was I walking away?
“Sure on ‘no’ to dinner?” He added, “I’ll explain my Camus selections.”
I hesitated then replied, “Wes, when do you leave town?”
“Okay, let’s see. Today’s Thursday. I leave Sunday afternoon.”
“Tell you what. Let’s agree to meet back here Saturday at 6:00. If you or I don’t show, no hard feelings. I’d explain more but it’s too complicated and I’m too tired.”
“It’s a date…I hope.” He lifted his eyebrows and smiled.
We shook hands and I was quickly out the door into the damp, cool night. I liked the feel of touching him.
The rain resumed just as I neared where I was staying. My place was close by, just a little further down Saint Joseph Street. I could see flashes of lighting and faint rumblings of thunder toward the river. As I went up the wet stairs into my funky apartment my mind was racing with so many things. How I felt when I touched Wes’ hand. Doug’s smiling eyes when he brought me coffee in the morning.
I had just moved in a couple of weeks before. The place consisted of about a fifteen by twenty-foot room with a tiny bathroom, but the balcony was nice, even if I shared it with another unit. It was a weird place. Seemed like it was just half a building. The red and black bricks looked so old. My window frames were metal and rusted, but somehow lovely. A small, noisy window AC unit was my climate control. My plug-in air freshener was keeping the musty smell a bit in check.
I slipped my shoes off and plopped down on the small loveseat. There was only room for a chair, loveseat, my small bed, and a tiny kitchenette in the corner—a miniature fridge, sink and small cabinet. My other possessions were back at my mom’s house. I didn’t miss them. I felt freer with less stuff. I moved into this apartment on a whim. I just needed space from Doug as soon as possible.
I had lived with Doug for three years.
Three years of my life spent gradually realizing we just couldn’t connect the way I wanted. The way I needed. I’d share an insight I thought powerful, and he’d just give me a quizzical look. I needed more. Even if he’d said, “You’re full of shit!” Anything! I craved a passionate reaction. I had been entertaining self-doubt, thinking I was expecting too much. Were my observations not that profound? Doug was an intelligent guy overall. Very successful. Was I the problem? But over time, I had ultimately had enough. I needed more from my lover. I regretted it took three years.
I looked about my room. Rain was beginning to pelt the two windows on the end of my unit. A flash of lighting streaked across the sky. Just me, my two suitcases of clothes and a few books. I turned on my lamp and picked up my copy of The Sun Also Rises. I was on my third reading of it. I read a page or two then tossed it to the side. I needed to figure out why I was being so haunted by my decision to leave Doug.
I was so restless. Soon I was back in my raincoat and headed down Carondelet Street in the direction of the Ace Hotel. I had texted my friend, Stephanie, to meet me at the hotel. As soon as I walked in the bar, I proceeded to the quieter back rooms, behind the bar.
Stephanie was already seated looking at her phone.
“Hey girl! How you doing?”
“C’mon girl, we been through all that. You did what you needed to do.”
“I know. Why am I so sad though? Shouldn’t the right thing feel good?”
The waitress put a drink before me.
“I ordered for you, something stiff,” Stephanie said.
“Thank you, Steph.”
“What’s a girlfriend for, huh?”
I looked her in the eye. “Thank you.”
“Okay, Mil you need to go find another man or take a trip or do something.”
“Look, it’s hard. Doug’s a good man. I broke his heart. I fear I broke him period. He’s too good for that.”
“He is a good man. You’re right on that. But…he isn’t good for you. You know that.”
“I know. Been doing a lot of thinking on this. He was good. He was wholesome. He would have been a great husband, great father even. He was safe, you know? He loved me. He almost worshiped me. I now feel so alone. I feel so bad I hurt him.”
“I get it. But, you gotta let him go. Let him meet the right person for him. He deserves that. You know you two had been growing apart a long time. You told me that you had gotten to where you had nothing to talk about.”
The music was getting a bit louder next door. The crowd was getting louder too. Steph reached out and put her hand on mine. I noticed she was dressed up a bit. Very pretty.
“Steph, you’re all dressed up. You ready to go partying or something?”
“I wanted to be ready Mil. You know me. Always ready for some fun.”
“Thanks for meeting me. Being here for me.”
“Let’s go dance. Let’s forget all this relationship bullshit!”
“Maybe in a bit.”
“Steph, why did Doug and I drift apart? It was so good at first.”
“Look, Doug’s a good guy, but you’re an intellectual. You light up when you’re talking to me about books, travel, adventure. You love editing books. It’s how you make your living. You love ideas. You need a man who can keep up with you. Challenge you. Grow from.”
She paused to put some fresh lipstick on and peered over at me, “Shit Mil, you’ve been trying to get him to go to France with you for over a year. Get your ass over to Paris and meet you a Frenchman. You’re hot girl. You’d have a blast in Paris.”
“Maybe. Maybe I could eventually have gotten Doug to start reading more, to want to travel, to explore.”
“Now you’re talking crazy. His passion is Saints’ football and watching movies. Didn’t you tell me he never reads?”
“Not much anymore.”
“Girl, you need to move on!” She paused a second and exclaimed, “Let’s go dance. They’re some cute guys here. Do I need to buy you another damn drink?”
“Wait. What if I give him one more chance, and I tell him what I need from him. Be super clear. If he doesn’t change, then I’m out. I feel so guilty. Did I really give him a chance?”
“You’re crazy. Three years!” Steph looked at me with big eyes and “that” look, waiting for me to agree. I didn’t.
She broke the silence, “You’re wasting your time Mil but suit yourself. Let’s go dance.”
As I walked home that night hearing my heels click on the wet sidewalk, I was resolved to give Doug one last chance. I enjoyed dancing with Steph and whatever guys waded into our dance space. It was fun, but something was missing. My mind raced wondering whether I had ever really told Doug what I needed versus just assuming he’d get it?
As I neared the corner of Saint Joseph Street, I saw a figure standing in a dark, shadowy doorway of the old police station. I got a strange feeling. I walked along the curb to keep my distance. As I went by the shadowy figure, I heard a woman’s voice whisper, “Set him free.”
I didn’t fully process the words until I had rounded the corner onto Saint Joseph. Part of me wanted to just keep going, but another part tugged at me to go back. Who, or what, the hell was she? I froze.
In a few seconds, I mustered the courage to go back to the corner. I slowly peered around the building. The doorway was empty. I looked up and down Carondelet Street. Nobody. I started thinking maybe I was imagining things. My head was buzzing from the loud music and too many drinks. Just then I saw a streetcar turning to come rumbling down Carondelet. I looked again at the doorway. Nothing.
As the streetcar clanged by, there she was: staring at me out the streetcar window. I shivered as our eyes briefly locked. She looked a thousand years old, like a witch, or maybe wisdom personified. I felt very strange. Was any of this real? Had I conjured her?
I shut my eyes hard to try and clear my vision. The streetcar was just a fading, rumbling sound as it passed under the red neon Ace Hotel sign in the distance. Soon all was quiet again. Just me, my buzz, my ringing ears, and the corner. A couple was laughing and staggering down Carondelet in the distance. Soon, even they were gone. All was wet, dark, and quiet, except for the ringing in my ears.
I sheepishly smiled at the same bartender from earlier in the evening. “Yeah, I guess so. I was just walking home and saw the light on. Next thing I knew I was sitting here. Same stool even.”
The surreal feeling lingered. The soccer had been replaced with basketball. Muted Hip-hop had replaced the classic rock. The red neon signs were still casting a glow about.
“You did look a little startled when you came in.”
“Yeah, something strange happened out there.”
“Well, I was just walking down Carondelet and…” I was watching for his reaction.
“Oh, nothing. I think I was just seeing things.” The bartender gave me an all-knowing smile.
He handed me a little pony beer. “Here’s a beer. Help calm ya down.”
“Just have a few sips. You still look a bit shaken.”
“C’mon…tell me. What happened?”
“I think I was just hearing things.”
The bartender looked at me with his eyebrows lifted and said in a conspiratorial tone, half-whisper like. “Okay, no worries. Some say that corner is haunted. Ain’t the first time I’ve heard stuff like this.”
“Everywhere is haunted in New Orleans!”
“Good point, Millicent.”
“Hey, how do you know my name?
“We bartenders, we hear things.” A wink and that flirtatious smile again.
The music suddenly was turned way down. Brighter lights coming on. The place was thinning out.
“Hey, thanks for the beer. I gotta get home.”
As I got to the door, I called out to the bartender, “Hey, y’all are open Saturday night, right?”
“Why wouldn’t we be?” He asked looking over his shoulder at me while washing glasses.
“Good. I’ll see you Saturday.”
“It’s a date, hon.”
I kind of hoped it would be. I was still dreamy about his knowing Camus.